Sunday, March 15, 2015

Smoking for broke beside the Molongolo

Where the market gardens that supplied Canberra as far back as the 1820s used to be a small fortune has been spent turning 86 acres overlooking the Eastern end of Lake Burley Griffin into a superb regional restaurant, Pialligo Estate Farmhouse Restaurant.

We had a fabulous lunch there as a small pre-birthday celebration. The place is superb, absolutely high quality. I couldn’t take my eyes off the copper guttering and downpipes – the owners John Russell and Rowan Brennan have not spared a cent. I thought all the loose copper in the world had already been stolen but clearly it’s still available.

The renovated building at Pialligo Estate that houses the main restaurant

I’d been following the development of the place since we used to buy superb bacon, smoked salmon and home-made baked beans from two charming Irish guys at the Epic Farmers Market, at least until they’d decided to give it a miss and move on.

One of them, Charlie Costelloe, is now the General Manager and the other, Peter Curry, runs the smokehouse. It’s much further around through Pialligo than I have ever been before and the 86 acres abuts the Molongolo River, with views to everywhere – the Brindabella Mountains, Black Mountain Tower, New Parliament House flagpole and the US eagle monument at Defence. The grounds are extensive and the plan is eventually to turn them into a Botanical Garden for weddings and picnics.

Head chef is Brendan Walsh with Jan Gundlach as culinary director. Walsh has worked at the three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, in London and at Gundlach's former restaurant Senso, in Fyshwick.

In fact when we arrived we discovered the place seems to have attracted a smattering of the hospitality industry across Canberra.

The plates and bowls are striking and attractive, though I found it difficult to leave any food on them.

I had to pinch all the menus to write up the meal because the place is so new I wasn’t sure if they would be on its website. We started with a glass each of French champagne – Marchand and Burch Crémant de Bourgogne NV. Then, folloowing a bowl of excellent sourdough bread, we had a small complimentary appetiser of smoked salmon pieces in a foam of spirulina seaweed. This was tinged with a deep green on top matching one of the bowls I liked. All the food is served in beautiful ceramic bowls. The one that took my fancy was green, like the breast of a King Parrot. I had considered having the smokehouse charcuterie and pickles because that is their speciality but in the end I had to put that off to another time.

I moved on to yellowfin tuna with young peas, Tasmanian wasabi and roasted almond milk, with a slightly bitter, salty and crunchy seaweed called sea blight. My dining companion had heritage tomatoes with burrata (a fresh Italian cheese made from mozzarella and cream), lemon verbena, grilled peach (from their gardens, of course) and young herbs. To wash it down we had a glass of Red Feet Pinot Gris 2014 from the King Valley and a glass of Jamsheed Rousanne 2013 from Beechworth. Both wines came from some of our favourite parts of Australia. We had been in both only in January. By this stage I was starting to think about adding Pialligo to the list.

We were really going now. My next course was Jumjum Farm duck with Tokyo turnips, grilled sweet corn and blood plum. My companion had Mayfield Park suckling pork with young carrots, gingerbread, vadouvan (a blend of spices that is a French version of a masala mix) and golden raisins. On the side we had kipler potatoes in herbs and lemon. I thought a red might be nice and tried the Pialigo Estate shiraz 2007. A vineyard has been there for about 15 years, longer than many of the more recent Murrumbatemen wineries, and the restaurant is making the most of it.

Even though I was geting a whole cheesecake for my birthday, we had to try the dessert. I had yellow peaches (once again, from their orchard) with honeycomb, Jersey milk and river mint. My companion doesn’t normally like chocolate desserts or ginger in desserts but liked the sound of the Valrhona jivara chocolate with passionfruit, dulche de leche and ginger. She wasn’t disappointed though she did say it was something she would only have once. She should have tried the peach – it was like a string of flavours with tiny milk pudding, fruit, then intense yellow honeycomb working their way across the plate, a parade of delights marching its way to my mouth.

We finished with coffee (short black for me) then as we were leaving were offered  a choice of complimentary chocolates or nougat (I took the nougat, one of my great weaknesses – I have many), a brown bag of nashi pears and a tour of the grounds. It’s quite clear that even though work is still being finalised, when it is finished it will be a spectacular addition to the nation’s capital and the region.

See also

'tableland' on Facebook – life on the land and at the table
'Life on the land and at the table, the companion Facebook site to this blog, for brief and topical snippets and vignettes about land to table – the daily routine of living in the high country, on the edge of the vast Pacific, just up from Sydney, just down from Mount Kosciuszko', 'tableland' on Facebook.

Wine o’clock in downtown Moss Vale
‘I've always had a weak spot for Moss Vale in the Southern Highlands of NSW. I have been watching it slowly change over the decades since. The latest addition is a new and very funky bar, Wine Mosaic Lounge, combined with a wine vendor, Argyle Street Wine Merchant. Passing through, we stopped to sample it. We thought aloud ‘we must come back here soon’ – and we will’, Wine o’clock in downtown Moss Vale.

Big city myopia, regional cities and cool capitals – is Canberra cool and who really cares?
'I’ve been entertained by the heated discussion about whether Canberra is cool or not. The question of regional cities and cool capitals is one that won’t go away. Instead of endlessly comparing cities – Melbourne versus Sydney, Melbourne versus Canberra, Canberra versus Queanbeyan, Devonport versus East Devonport (as we did in my youth) – to gauge their degree of cool or of dismal, perhaps we’d be better seeking out the interesting places and features that lurk in every city, town and locality', Big city myopia, regional cities and cool capitals – is Canberra cool and who really cares?

Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo 
‘In winter your mind turns to food - well, it turns there anytime, but perhaps more so in winter. I can’t remember how many years I have been coming to Grazing restaurant, in the tiny historic town of Gundaroo, just outside Canberra – it seems like forever. In the time I’ve been coming here Prime Ministers have risen and fallen, Governments have teetered, illusions have shattered. On a Sunday recently, I ventured out from the cold of approaching winter on a clear, blue day and went there one more time for food, wine and firewood. I wasn’t disappointed’, Eating out in the cold country – Grazing at Gundaroo.

Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back
‘I seem to spend a lot of time in the small Italian and Sons restaurant in hipster heaven in downtown Braddon, with its equally small bar annexe, Bacaro, at the rear. It’s so good and so pleasant that it’s easy to forget the other parts of the Italian empire. The flagship restaurant, Mezzalira, is across the the city, near the National University. It’s in the fabulous but somewhat neglected though stately Melbourne Building, with its Italianate arches and colonnades. I sometimes think that if suddenly the world was about to end (a bit like contemporary times) and I was offered the choice of only one cuisine until the crunch, I’d have to choose Italian. That way I could die happy,’ Mezzalira Ristorante – the Italian empire strikes back.

Ester – the sweet smell of success
‘Because the high country is adjacent to the low country, it takes only three hours to drive from the nation’s capital to the nation’s financial capital. In the early to mid 1990s Chippendale in Sydney was a suburb you travelled through to get somewhere else. All that is changing in a big way, with plenty there to explore. A sure sign of these times is eatery Ester, a restaurant that reflects the focus of its name on the science of food with some intrepid experiments in the culinary arts’, Ester – the sweet smell of success.

In a corner with a cake (or two) – the hidden attraction of local hangouts
‘Tucked away in a corner at the Ainslie shops where it’s easy to miss entirely ­– in the heart of the suburb know as the Red Centre for it’s exceptionally high Labor vote – is an unexpected delight. The location has hosted a series of less than successful ventures but this most recent has been an unqualified success. Who would have thought that a cafe hailing from Brittany could attract such a crowd. The secret of success is that it focuses on what it does and it does it well. You can park yourself inside the small venue or outside if the weather is fine and pick from some unexpected sweet pastries, throw down the odd glass of French wine or eat buckwheat pancakes or baguettes. The cafe also runs to daily specials that can be very unexpected. Long may it reign over us – Rule Brittany rather than Rule Britannia’, In a corner with a cake (or two) – the hidden attraction of local hangouts.

We all scream for icecream – cooling down in a cold climate with Frugii 
‘I realise I may have just become a statistic. I have a suspicion that I have eaten more sorbet, gelato and icecream since local Canberra icecream outlet Frugii opened in Canberra’s Braddon perimeter than I have eaten in my whole previous life. Tucked away in hipster heaven, it keeps churning out flavours, in an ever changing smorgasbord of coldness’, We all scream for icecream – cooling down in a cold climate with Frugii.

A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven
‘On a bustling Friday night in hipster heaven, I popped into my favourite Canberra restaurant, Italian and Sons, planning for little more than a quick bite to eat. I managed to get my favourite spot – when I’m not settled comfortably in Bacaro, the adjoining bar out the back, that is – sitting in the window, watching the action on the street. I headed straight for a real blast from my Adelaide past, part of my earliest discovery of Italian cuisine – saltimbocca. Then I beat a path down Lonsdale Street to Frugii, Canberra’s own dessert laboratory. What is happening to this city? It’s getting cooler by the minute and it’s not just the icecream or the approach of winter’, A bustling Friday night in hipster heaven.

Squatting on the main road – the Old Canberra Inn is new again 
‘The Old Canberra Inn has squatted on a main road in my vicinity for as long as I can remember – and obviously, as it was built in the 19th Century, as long as anyone else can remember. It seems to have changed hands – or maybe it’s just that I’ve finally looked at it more closely – but its a terrific local pub. It’s casual food that’s easy to enjoy, it’s local and it has a good range of drinks to wind up your day ­– what more do you need on a weekday after a bout of exercise when your muscles are just starting to be sore and your calves are mooing’, Squatting on the main road – the Old Canberra Inn is new again.

A princess comes home – paulownia trees and Japanese wedding chests
‘Recently I planted a new tree in my garden – a paulownia tree. I bought it because I have a 1930s Japanese wedding chest from near Tokyo made from kiri or paulownia, the very tree I have acquired and planted. It is named in honour of Queen Anna Pavlovna of The Netherlands (1795–1865), daughter of Tsar Paul I of Russia. For this reason it is also often called ‘princess tree’ wood. It is very versatile – it has also been used in electric guitar bodies and in surboards in Australia. It was once customary to plant a paulownia tree when a baby girl was born and then to make it into a chest as a wedding present when she married. This is unlikely to be the fate of my tree but it’s comforting to know that at a pinch it could be uprooted and converted into a wardrobe for some deserving niece’, A princess comes home - paulownia trees and Japanese wedding chests.

I must go down to the sea again – Sailor’s Thai Canteen still cooking 
‘We went back to a favourite spot, Sailors Thai Canteen, established by renowned chef David Thompson who has now long relocated to Bangkok, where it all originates. There were just the two of us so we kept it simple. Remembring people and places. Memory is all we have to hold the world together. Memories of eating and drinking together are a big part of that. Eating, drinking and talking – about everything and nothing, till the cows come home’, I must go down to the sea again – Sailor’s Thai Canteen still cooking.

Peas in a pod – food takes off
‘Pod Food is in the heart of the slightly ramshackle gardening and nursery hub of Canberra, Pialligo , adjacent to the burgeoning exercise in urban growth called Canberra Airport. It was always the place you went to get large pots and even larger apples. Pod Food was always good enough – but now it is something a whole lot more impressive. On a rainy Friday I entered through their marvellous cottage garden entrance way to sit on the covered and contained outside deck. The entrance to Pod Food, formerly part of an operating nursery, is the sort of garden I eventually want to have. It felt highly suitable sitting at the entrance to the Australian high country as the rain came down, drinking the fine product of another high region on the opposite side of the world’, Peas in a pod – food takes off.

Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven
‘It had been quite a week and I had been crushed by too many encounters with the crazy world of Centrelink as I fulfilled my long list of aged care responsibilities. I needed cheering up so last night ate out at the venerable Italian and Sons, the very first of the many funky venues which now enliven Braddon. My attention was drawn to the rare appearance of vitello tonnato. My imagination had been captured decades ago when I was a young boy by seeing the recipe for the dish in Margaret Fulton’s classic cookbook. I finally tried it in a tiny restaurant in Florence, during my first visit overseas, after a stint at the massive Frankfurt Book Fair in 1989. This most recent one was the best I have ever eaten outside my own home – well, perhaps the best anywhere. This is a favourite place, probably my most favourite in Canberra. Coming here always makes me feel happy and what more can you ask?’, Vitello Tonnato for a life well lived in hipster heaven.

Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century
‘On a day and night which was bitterly cold – as cold as Canberra has been this year, with the hint of snow clouds overhead – I was reminded why I live here. As we wandered along after a full day of cultural institutions and design events, looking for somewhere to eat we impetuously popped into Restaurant Eightysix and even more impetuously were able to get a table. I had forgotten reading somewhere that famed long-former Adelaide chef, Christine Manfield was here for the month, cooking up an Asian-inspired menu. How much better could it get?’, Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century.

Provenance - knowing where good things come from
‘It took me only five years but I finally found my way to Provenance, the legendary regional restaurant established by chef Michael Ryan in Beechworth in 2010. Provenance is widely considered one of the best restaurants in regional Victoria, in a tiny state that contains many good regional restaurants. I had been meaning to eat there since it was established and given how regularly we travel to Beechworth and its surrounds I was amazed I hadn’t been earlier. It took some time but it was worth it’, Provenance - knowing where good things come from.

In praise of the Berra
‘When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say “if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died.” Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable. Berrans are a hardy bunch – they can withstand the hot winds of summer and of Australia’s Parliament, the chill flurries from the Snowy Mountains and the chilling news of budget cuts. The Berra is half-way between everywhere’, In praise of the Berra.

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